3 Best Rafting Trips on the Colorado River
With rocky walls towering above and the sound of roaring water rising, Captain Matt Thorne readies to row through Westwater Canyon’s infamous Skull Rapids. It’s one of the canyon’s least-forgiving rapids, with the reputation for sucking your boat into the Room of Doom — a rock alcove with a current powerful enough to flip and destroy rafts.
Fortunately, Thorne is a veteran guide, and he paddles hard and fast, maneuvering around the boat-eating hole and through the Skull’s circling pools and relentless waves. Icy water slams our faces as our six-person crew emerges from the eddy laughing, smiling and soaked — glad to have taken the advice to wear wetsuits on this 90-degree day. Skull is the trip’s last big rapid, and after making it through unscathed, we dry off under sunny skies and float through calmer waters toward Cisco, Utah. This ghost town takeout is the last port of call on our two-day journey through this wildly remote place.
Westwater Canyon is just one of many epic trips on the grand Colorado River as it flows through Utah, and its combination of raging waves, historical sites, and isolated camping make it my favorite. But for those looking to chart these untamed waters by raft, all three trips offer incredible experiences like those had by explorers of yesteryear — with much better equipment, of course.
1. Westwater Canyon
Time Commitment: Day trip or overnighter
With its combination of colorful stone walls and serious whitewater, Westwater Canyon is often compared to the Grand Canyon, and it should be at the top of every rafter’s bucket list. Access to this 17-mile section through narrow Black Granite Gorge is limited to protect the river and maintain solitude for rafters amid its ancient sandstone spires. But it gets loud and rowdy when you reach the 11 named rapids, featuring Class III-IV doozies like Funnel Falls, Sock-It-To-Me and Last Chance.
Between the rapids you can enjoy floating through calm water and resting as you watch for the bald eagles and blue herons that call Westwater home. But the powerful rapids and soaring birds aren’t the only sights on this isolated, wild river. You can tie up the boat and hike to an old gold miner’s cabin or outlaw cave. As you’re exploring, be sure to look for Indian petroglyphs left behind on the canyon walls.
Go Guided: Due to this river’s difficulty, it’s best to go with an outfitter such as Western River Expeditions, unless your crew includes expert oarsmen. When you book, you’ll have the option of one- or two-day trips. And while you can paddle Westwater in a day, why would you want to? Overnighting gives you more time to explore the canyon’s many mysteries. Camp at private sites on the water’s edge and hike to overlooks before enjoying a Dutch oven dinner made by your guides. This is what river time is all about.
Fly Solo: Westwater is a coveted canyon to paddle, but scoring a private permit isn’t impossible. Request one by phone two months in advance of your planned launch date and the odds are in your favor. If overnighting, a campsite will be assigned to your group. Spring runoff permits can be harder to nab as only five privates are given out per day. At any water level, Westwater is challenging and should be undertaken only by experts.